February 27, 2013

Maine bill seeks to regulate police use of drones

The bill would limit the ability of law enforcement to use drones and require a warrant in most cases.

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — Maine police have yet to launch a drone to gather information from the sky, but the prospect of law enforcement surveillance overhead was enough to prompt a legislative hearing Tuesday on a bill that would regulate drone use.

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Shenna Bellows, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, testifies in favor of L.D. 236, An Act To Protect the Privacy of Citizens from Domestic Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Use, before the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday at the State House in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

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Christopher Taylor, president and drone designer for Viking Unmanned Aerial Systems, of Limington, talks about his company's FR-Xtreme drone model, which is on table, on Tuesday at the State House in Augusta.The company's website calls it a "Vertical Take-Off and Landing Commercial Quad Copter built to serve multiple industries."

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

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TRACKING USE OF, RESTRICTIONS ON DRONES

• The most popular consumer drone on Amazon.com is the 22-inch-long Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 Quadricopter, available for $295.77 with free shipping. It can be controlled by tilts from a smartphone or tablet, capturing high-definition video and pictures. However, it has only a 165-foot control range.

• But a 27-foot-long Predator drone, often the military's weapon of choice overseas in strikes, costs $4.5 million, The New York Times reported in 2009. They're powered by a high-performance snowmobile engine and are flown with joysticks, often from trailers halfway around the world, the newspaper said.

• The looming loosening of federal restrictions pertaining to drone use in 2015 has led to some optimistic predictions about the industry. Figures published in the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle in November 2012 say the global market should nearly double over a decade, from $6.6 billion to $11.4 billion, with $2.4 billion alone in America.

• There's a "drone caucus" in Congress: the 60-member House Unmanned System Caucus. The Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle said those lawmakers have helped speed up drones' entry into domestic markets. And from 2008 to 2012, those lawmakers got $8 million in drone-related campaign contributions, the newspapers reported.

• In August 2012, the Institute for International Studies counted 807 military drones in active use worldwide, and their figures were published by the Guardian, a British newspaper. The United States had 679 of them. India was second, with at least 38. However, the figure was an underestimate, as full totals don't include Russia, China and Turkey.

The proposal by state Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, would limit the ability of law enforcement to use drones and require a warrant in most cases, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. The chapter's parent organization is leading a campaign in many states to strike pre-emptively at the aircraft before they become established as law enforcement tools.

Maine is one of 21 states currently considering legislation to regulate the use of drones, according to the national ACLU. Stateline reported earlier this month that nine law enforcement agencies in six states – Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Texas and Washington – have been authorized to use drones, while nine more have applied to the FAA to do so.

The Maine Department of Public Safety bought a drone recently for about $300, but the agency's deputy chief said it was just for the sake of "curiosity."

"We definitely would not want to deploy anything without a clear policy direction," said Lt. Col. Raymond Bessette, the department's deputy chief. He said the department will use it in training until it figures out how the unmanned aircraft can help them.

A range of groups testified in favor of the bill Tuesday, including those from the libertarian Defense of Liberty political action committee, a medical marijuana trade group and an anti-war veterans' group.

"Big Brother is no longer the stuff of science fiction," Patrick said in his testimony. "The technology is real, it is in America and it will inevitably come to Maine, yet our laws have not kept up with this advancing technology."

The bill defines a drone as "an aircraft that is operated without a physical human presence within or on the aircraft and guided by remote control." The aircraft does not have to be equipped with a camera to be considered a drone, however, it cannot have a weapon attached to it.

Several who testified said the measure needs work.

Attorney General Janet Mills said in written testimony that she supports the bill's aim, but the language is too broad and could be read to prohibit children from flying toy airplanes. The bill could also prevent the use of drones for news gathering, mapping, weather monitoring or private investigations.

"I would like to support this bill, because I know its intentions are good," Mills wrote. "But I cannot."

Assistant Attorney General William Stokes, speaking for Mills at the hearing, suggested the committee take a year to review drones before acting on legislation. Mills recommended that the Maine Criminal Justice Academy's board of trustees be charged with developing a protocol.

Bessette, the public safety department officer, testified against the bill, saying he agrees with Mills' suggestion.

Daniel Bernier, an attorney for the Maine Society of Land Surveyors, echoed concerns about the restrictions in the bill.

He said the potential for drone use in surveying at least requires an exemption, as land photography can be done cheaply and precisely with a drone.

"I often kid that I almost never testify on behalf of the land surveyors because I can't get them to get mad about anything," he said. "They're not mad, but there is a panic setting in if engaged in a major mapping project without aerial photography."

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Additional Photos

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State Sen. John Patrick introduces L.D. 236, An Act To Protect the Privacy of Citizens from Domestic Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Use, before the Legislature's Judiciary Committee on Tuesday at the State House in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

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This April 27, 2012, photo shows the Draganflyer X6 helicopter in Seattle. A proposal by state Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, would limit the ability of Maine law enforcement to use drones and require a warrant in most cases.

AP

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Lt. Col. Raymond Bessette, deputy chief of the Maine State Police, testifies during a public hearing on L.D. 236, An Act To Protect the Privacy of Citizens from Domestic Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Use, before the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday at the State House in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

click image to enlarge

Deputy Attorney General William Stokes, head of the criminal division, testifies during a public hearing on L.D. 236, An Act To Protect the Privacy of Citizens from Domestic Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Use, before the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday at the State House in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

  


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